From the “Dumb Box” to the Museum as Interface: 
Curating and Conserving California Digital Design

Martina Haidvogl / Robert J. Kett

 
The Bay Area has witnessed an unprecedented entanglement of design and technology in recent decades. This rise of the digital is also reflected in new kinds of objects entering the museum’s collection. Designers’ interventions in these works extend beyond the “dumb box” of plastic computer enclosures to encompass software, user interfaces, responsive graphics, and designed experiences. This expansion of the designer’s role in the development of new technologies raises challenges for museums with implications for acquisition, conservation, curation, and display.
 
This talk will examine a number of research and exhibition projects at SFMOMA which take advantage of the museum’s proximity and access to designers working at the forefront of current technological developments. The Architecture + Design department opened SFMOMA’s Snøhetta expansion in 2016 with Typeface to Interface: Graphic Design from the Collection. This exhibition marked the first event in a series of efforts to examine new ways of displaying complex technological design objects. Preparations included hands-on study days and installation mock-ups of various display options, which were reviewed among members of the Team A+D research consortium. These curatorial investigations were in turn influencing preservation and stewardship efforts. 
Cross-departmental ways of working are at the heart of SFMOMA’s five year Mellon award—the Artist Initiative—which puts the voices of living designers at the center of an approach to collections stewardship and that embraces cross-disciplinary collaboration as a regular museum practice. Nestled within this framework, the research aims to push further the boundaries of exhibition design and will culminate in an upcoming exhibition on the history of California design which will activate digital works through visitor interaction.
 

Caring for and exhibiting works of digital design requires new institutional resources and updated philosophies which mirror the multifaceted objects and interdisciplinary workflows of digital design itself. This talk discusses initiatives that support these new approaches, which are increasingly reframing our understandings of not only digital, but of more traditional, “analog” works as well.